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"I Was Trying to Tell a Story. And It Came Out Horribly."

Author Daniel Handler on his new book, working with Netflix—and that disastrous watermelon joke.

Daniel Handler

Daniel Handler 


This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Name: Daniel Handler
Job: Writer
Age: 44
Residence: Haight-Ashbury

So. First things first. You came under serious fire in November for making a racially tinged joke while presenting an award to Jacqueline Woodson, who is black, at the National Book Awards. What happened there? Were you just trying to be funny?
I wasn’t, even—I was trying to tell a story. And it came out horribly. It was a story that I thought was interesting, a story that was about me and about Jackie and about the work that we both do. But I was wrong.

What was the backlash like?
It was terrible. Mostly, I was concerned about Jackie. I’m hoping it doesn’t define Jackie’s book, which is really marvelous. And I certainly hope it doesn’t define my book, either. I’m sure it’ll affect our relationship— we’re still friends, but it was a really tough time for her. It was a tough time for everybody. In general, I wanted to encourage people—who were rightfully angry, for the most part—to try to find a way to resolve this positively. I was more concerned about that than about my own personal tumult. But it’s no fun. That’s all I have to say about it.

Moving forward, your new book, We Are Pirates, out this month, is being pitched as a children’s book for adults. The plot—a teenage girl decides to become a pirate on San Francisco Bay—has a fairytale quality, but the themes are adult: A main character, for example, has Alzheimer’s. How did the conceit come about?
I was thinking about what sort of people would want to run away and become pirates. For me, that’s teen girls, who have a lot of expectations and pressure on them but not a lot of room to maneuver. I think most adults also feel hemmed in and hungry for escape—it’s a universal theme.

You mention in the “Note to Readers” that you started writing this story a while ago, but realized that you didn’t have the knowledge to do it in full. Why?
I didn’t know what I was going to do when I put the book aside. But then I had a kid, and my father received an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. It was pretty eerie. So much of this book has to do with being a parent and wanting to keep somebody safe, even as they rebel. And with my dad—before, my perspective on Alzheimer’s was the hackneyed pop-culture portrayal of dementia. But I got a first-row seat as his disease progressed. And that made the book what it is now, which, I think, is a book of depth and emotion. It’s not a goof.

Netflix recently optioned A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Yes. It’s exciting. Right now we’re looking for a director. It feels a little bit like dating, which I have not done in a long time. I meet people for coffee and am like, “So, are you ready for a large commitment?”

So you’re making TV and publishing novels from San Francisco—far from New York and L.A., where publishing and entertainment are centered. You’re not leaving us any time soon, are you?
No. I really love it here. I lived in New York for five years, and over there the scene can be very competitive and very gossipy. But most authors here don’t even know what publishing house their fellow authors are at, and big authors and small authors are all hanging out, rubbing ideas off each other. I’m just as likely to go hear a local poet read from her own hand-stapled chapbook as I am to see an award-winning author come and read. I like that.


Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco

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